04/22/10

When Two Rights Make a Wrong: Flavored Saisons

Long time no see loyal reader. I’d like to try and get some momentum going again on the blog and shake out some of my blogging cobwebs before starting on another project, blogging on Boston area restaurants with some friends of mine. So here’s what’s been on my mind lately in the world of beer.

People who know me know that Saison is one of my favorite styles; an odd outlier in my repertoir of heavy, dark, roasty, thick-enough-to-chew favorites. Something about it just works. It’s crisp and light – or more accurately it’s percieved as light because it’s dry and usually a bit heavily carbonated. Like most Belgian styles, Saisons generally feature a complex yeast profile from the use of special yeast and generally warmer fermentation temperatures, which kicks up the fruity ester character, and sometimes adds a spicy phenol touch.

But more to the point, they are a relatively delicate beer, which further accentuates the yeast characters. Based on White Labs’ yeast profiles and the BJCP style guidelines, the attenuation of, say, a British style Pale Ale is something on the order of 70-75%, whereas a Saison tends more toward the neighborhood of 85-90%. This means more sugar is removed during fermentation and the result has a very light malt character that isn’t overwhelming. Then the hop character has to be restrained accordingly to keep the beer in balance (especially since the Belgians don’t really seem to care for hops anyway, they are known for aging their hops to remove the bittering and flavor characteristics before use-which I think I wrote about but was apparently never posted. We’ve got some catching up to do…) BJCP guidelines put the Saison at 20-35 IBUs (a measure of hop bitterness) whereas a Pale would be more like 30-50 IBUs. We’ve also talked about the BU:GU ratio before, which is a way to measure the balance of a beer based on the IBUs and the original gravity. Higher numbers are more bitter, lower numbers less. On this measure, Saison comes in around 0.4-0.5, and a Pale is more like 0.6-0.8.

So, science aside, what we’re talking about here is a relatively light, malty beer with a delicate flavor that allows the complexity of the malt and yeast character to really shine. And Saisons happen to be one of this beer snob’s favorite summertime options, not to mention a perfect stand-in for white wine or champagne with food, any time of year. For my favorite examples, see Brooklyn One (didn’t care for Brooklyn Two as much) or the classic Saison DuPont from Brasserie DuPont in Belgium. Other good examples include Southampton Saison, Victory Saison and Ommegang Hennepin.

CBC has a new(ish) beer on tap called Sgt Pepper, which is a peppercorn flavored Saison. I say newish because it’s been brewed in past seasons, and also because, well, I haven’t posted in a while. Since I love Saison, and I love peppercorns (mmm…Steak au Poivre…) you’d think I’d be all over this one. And every year I think the same thing, and every year…I’m wrong.

See, you try to take in the bouquet on this one and you sneeze. It’s just way too much peppercorn for a saison in my opinion. The Punks have a long standing bias against flavored Saisons for this reason, no matter what you put in them the flavor seems to overpower that delicate malt and yeast character which is the hallmark of the style. I thought we were alone on this one, and I don’t mean to second guess some of my favorite brewers here, but anecdotal evidence from my friends bears out that this one isn’t for everyone. Taste it before you get a full one.

There is one more thing to keep in mind here. Several of my beer and brewing gurus (see Charlie Papazian, or Stan Hieronymus) are quick to decry the practice of beer snobs like me judging a beer against style guidelines. That’s important for competition, but flavored beers are, by necessity, kind of unique beasts. This is why they created specialty categories at beer competitions to begin with; to encourage creative brewing rather than stifle it. So please, do try it, you might like it. Just do so with caution. And maybe don’t breathe too deep on that first sip.

07/11/09

Just One More (I Promise) on Harpoon

I thought I was done with this, but turns out there’s one more in me relating to Harpoon. I promise this is the last one for a long time; this is not a Harpoon fansite after all, it’s a beer blog. That said…

First a recap. In our last article I discussed that there are two very important flavor compounds in yeast: esters (which taste fruity) and phenols (which taste spicy). Different yeast strains produce these in varying amounts, and Harpoon’s leans to the estery side without much phenolic character. I also discussed that brewers have various ways of reigning in the character of the yeast and making it less-estery or less-phenolic, but that they can’t turn esters into phenols, the character is what it is. With this in mind, I examined Harpoon’s lineup and found that they had selected styles that are defined by the BJCP style guidelines to contain either an estery profile or a clean profile (no esters or phenols to speak of). This is what allows them to brew consistently good beer in so many styles with only a single yeast strain.

This is a new way of looking at things for me. As a home brewer I don’t generally start with an ingredient and try to find ways to use it; I start out wanting to brew a specific beer or style of beer and then figure out how best to produce it. Homebrewers have this liberty because we are working in smaller batches and don’t have to worry as much about our supply chain. Our local homebrew shop always has what we need in appropriate quantities regardless of what style of beer we are brewing. But professional brewers make their lives much easier if they find a way to make many styles of beer without using niche ingredients or a dozen different strains of yeast.

I couldn’t help but think it would be fun to play brewmaster and try to brainstorm where they could go next. Just a quick disclaimer, I’m not so bold as to second guess the professionals (yet) and indeed Harpoon may have already brewed or be planning to brew any one of my ideas. Furthermore, they could have already tried and failed because the ideas themselves are no good; sometimes things that sound like they should work just don’t. No, I’m not being vain here, this is just a fun little exercise I decided to share with everyone; trying to climb inside the head of a professional brewer for a moment.

First, there’s the ales of the British and American tradition. As I said in the previous article, beers from these traditions tend to have an estery profile, so any of them would probably be a good choice. Indeed the Harpoon lineup already includes several of these styles for just this reason, but others are missing. However, the natural fit between this category and Harpoon’s estery yeast strain also makes this category less interesting, so I won’t dwell on it long. (Also, I apologize to the Scots and Irish for lumping them into the British category here, but you do share a somewhat similar brewing heritage, so think of it as shorthand not a slight. Slainte!) Styles missing from the current lineup include:

  • Scottish Ales of any kind (one of my favorite categories), for which some fruity esters would be appropriate. If I were to add one to the lineup, however, I’d err on the cleaner side, Scottish Ales are supposed to be about malt, not esters.
  • Stouts, which personally wouldn’t work for me. The roastiness would largely cover the esters, and if the esters showed through I’d view it as an unwelcome intrusion. The possible exception would be a sweet stout, for which some fruitiness might be nice, but I’d trade this one in for the absolute no-brainer:
  • Porter. When I started thinking about it, I can’t for the life of me understand why Harpoon doesn’t already make one. Many good porters have fruity characteristics, and the Harpoon lineup is conspicuously light on dark beers (the wonderful Munich Dark being the main exception). I would even argue that the Porter would be a more natural fit for their yeast than the Munich Dark, which is based on a lager style that doesn’t play well with fruity esters.

Another obvious group to consider would be the hybrid beers. They’ve started making a Kolsch already (Summer Beer), which works quite well. Essentially, hybrid beers are beers that either use a lager yeast (which tend to be cleaner than ale strains) at higher temperatures to encourage esters and other byproducts, or use an ale yeast (which tends to be fruitier than lager strains) at lower temperatures to reign in the byproducts and estery flavor. The result is not quite a lager and not quite an ale (hence the name hybrid beer), but exhibits limited esters in an otherwise clean lager-like palate. I would encourage a push by Harpoon into the hybrids category since their yeast would play well here, and it would diversify their otherwise Brit-Am ale heavy lineup. Possibilities include:

  • California Common (commonly known as Steam Beer, but that’s trademarked by Anchor Brewing Company). They’d want to make sure the beer finishes somewhat dry, and not go crazy on the esters.
  • German Altbiers would also work, but I wonder if it would concern them to be playing in the same space as the widely popular Long Trail Ale. I don’t personally know of any other American breweries that make an Alt (pipe up if you do), but Long Trail is quite popular in Harpoons breadbasket of New England, so the competition might not be welcome.
  • Cream Ale is an interesting option in my book. My first exposure to this style was a restaurant near South Street Seaport in Manhattan that served Genessee’s cream ale for a dollar a can (completely unheard of in Manhattan). I wasn’t quite a connoisseur back then, but it was a mighty fine cheap beer. Brewing this one to style is something Harpoon would have no interest in most likely, however, since the BJCP seems to make DMS (a compound found mainly in cheap beer that tastes and smells like cooked vegetables and is generally frowned upon) and the use of corn adjuncts a requirement. But I see no reason why cream ale can’t be a craft beer. One of the highlights of the Punks’ recent visit to Montreal was McAuslan‘s cream ale, which was nitrogenated for a velvety (you might say “creamy”) mouthfeel and sported a delightful, estery profile. Our notes don’t mention anything about cooked vegetables; it was quite refreshing and delicious. I can definitely see Harpoon making a splash in this style if they bend the style guidelines a bit like McAuslan did. And this is another style rarely touched by craft brewers, McAuslan is the only example that comes to mind, and that’s not distributed widely (if at all) in the US, so this one could definitely be a good move for Harpoon, I feel.

What about the lagers? We’ve already seen that Harpoon can make a reasonably good Munich Dark and a seasonal Octoberfest by toning down the esters of their yeast a bit. They might have a tad more esters in there than they would if they used a lager yeast, but this can be said to provide some additional complexity even if it’s not appropriate to style. Surely they could have similar success in many of the other lager styles, but some might be better choices than others. Let’s take a look at just a sample of what’s out there:

  • Lighter lagers (like Pilsner or Helles) might not be a very good fit. I’m most familiar with the Pilsner style so I’ll work with that, but the category shares alot of similar characteristics and the analysis would likely apply to most of them. Good Pilsners are relatively delicate in character. They are full flavored for sure (Pilner Urquell is not your grandfather’s “true pilsner beer” – unless of course he emigrated from the Czech Republic) but the fullness of the flavor comes as much from good balance and restraint as anything else. Like soft chamber music, the notes may not be loud but they go together. I feel that even the restrained esters seen in some of Harpoon’s other lagers might overwhelm this style’s delicate sensibilities.
  • Dark and amber lagers (like many american craft lagers, vienna lagers, and the german black “schwarz” beer). Harpoon already brews a Munich Dark that works out quite well. This is a bit safer territory than the lighter lagers for such an estery yeast, because (as I’ll be explaining in another post later this week) dark beers tend to exhibit a more complex malt character than lighter ones. This added complexity and boldness would help cover an errant ester or two from the yeast. However, since they already brew a munich dark, a beer in this category might not be differentiated enough to pursue.
  • This leaves us with one of my all time favorites: the Bock. According to BJCP, traditional bocks and double (doppel) bocks are permitted to have some esters and fruitiness in their profile. I’ve tasted some very good bocks with fruit notes. The big problem here is that we are largely talking about different kinds of fruit. I would describe the profile of Harpoon yeast as mostly citrus fruity, with a hint of something else I’m going to call berry-like because it reminds me vaguely of berries, particularly strawberries. Most often bocks are described as similar to darker fruits such as plums, prunes, raisins, or even grapes. This flavor comes not from the yeast, but from the darker malts and from reactions that take place during the boil (again this will be discussed further later this week). I still think it would be an interesting addition to the lineup if the yeast is reigned in somewhat and a generous helping of darker malts and melanoidins is added to give the darker fruit notes. I can picture a brew where the brighter citrus and berry notes balance the rich dark fruity notes and create a fuller, more complex palate. I’m not sure it would work, but I am sure it would be fun to try.

Finally, the Belgians. I have to admit I wasn’t sure where to begin with this one, since I don’t know much about their beer styles. I love Belgian beer with a passion, but it tends to be difficult to lump into categories; so much so that when I try beers side by side from a single Belgian style, I can scarcely recognize that they have anything in common. Furthermore, the Belgians make extensive use of two things that would be problematic in this exercise: brettanomyces and sugar. Brett yeast would be out of the question here since that’s the entire point of this exercise, and the use of simple sugars rather than malt, while not wrong in any way, would be uncharacteristic of the other Harpoon beers, which are brewed entirely with malt. Nevertheless, I did my best to overcome these limitations and here’s what I came up with:

  • According to BJCP, Belgian Pale Ales do tend to exhibit an estery profile. Using BJCP guidelines and Jamil Zainasheff’s Brewing Classic Styles I was able to find that the difference between a Belgian and the more familiar British Pale Ale appears to be 1) the use of noble hops rather than British varieties, which would lend a spicier hop character as opposed to citrusy or pine resiny, and 2) a slightly more phenolic (spicy) yeast character, though it seems that the phenols should be restrained by lower temperature fermentation. Harpoon could concievably pull this one off, since the phenols are more of an accent flavor than the main event here. However, if you remove the phenols you are left with a relatively small change in hop character, and the beer probably wouldn’t be far enough differentiated from Harpoon Ale (which is somewhere between an Amber and a Pale).
  • Then there’s another Punk favorite, the Saison. This is an unusual one for me to like: very citrusy and very fruity, light in body, and heavily carbonated it represents the exact opposite end of the spectrum from my other favorite styles. But for some reason doing everything wrong just seems to turn out right in my book. The flavor profile of a Saison is an excellent match for Harpoon yeast, heavy on citrus and berry. BJCP does mention that light phenols can be present, or that they can be substituted for the use of actual spices – a practice I generally frown on. But in this case I might make an exception. The spritzy, highly carbonated, light bodied nature of Saisons seems to obscure some of the finer points of the flavor profile, and might successfully hide the use of spices in place of yeast characteristics. I think the real challenge here would come from the light body and dry finish; these come from exceptionally high attenuation by the yeast (that is the yeast keep working and eat a far larger portion of the sugars in the wort before shutting down, leaving a lighter body and not much residual sweetness, which gives the beer a dry character to the finish. Generally this is accomplished by the use of specialized yeast strains, different mash techniques, or the use of simple sugars in place of a portion of the malt. I’m not sure what level of attenuation the Harpoon guys can get out of their yeast, but if they are willing to let some sugar into the batch just this once, they could concievably pull it off. They might end up with a fantastic beer that is very different from others in their lineup, and makes great use of the unique estery profile of their yeast that they are so proud of. It might not make it into the main lineup, but would certainly make a great limited edition or specialty offering, similar to Brooklyn Local One from the Brooklyn Brewery.

So after going over the many possibilities, here’s my picks for what I’d most like to see next from Harpoon. A porter would be a natural fit, extending the British portion of their lineup and adding a bit more color to a relatively light lineup. Also a good fit, a cream ale, brewed not to the BJCP guidelines but to craft beer standards instead – more along the lines of McAuslan than Genessee (not to knock Genessee, it along with Yuengling are my personal lawnmower beers of choice, or would be if I had a lawn to mow).

Then there’s the extra credit, swing-for-the-fences brews. A bold, dark Bock style beer with a hint of Harpoon’s signature ester profile to balance the rich fruity malt notes, and a true-to-style Belgian-inspired Saison that really showcases, loud and clear, the citrus and berry notes I pick up in other Harpoon beers. Both of these, if they worked out, might work better as limited edition brews.

It was a fun exercise stepping into the head of a professional brewer and looking at the relationship between beer and yeast backwards for a change. I’m very pleased with the outcome and hope my rambling was either entertaining, educational, or both. Now enough harping on Harpoon for a while, later this week I’ll be discussing why some beer drinkers are afraid of the dark (beers that is) and why I think they shouldn’t be.

07/5/09

What Harpoon Brewery Can Teach Us About Yeast

One thing about Harpoon has confused me ever since I started brewing for myself: their insistence on using a single strain of yeast for all of their main lineup of beers. It is a rather broad lineup, representing major American, British, and German styles, and now with the addition of UFO White, even a token Belgian. Despite their use of Ale Yeast, they field a respectable lineup of Lager styles, including Octoberfest (fall seasonal), Kolsch (summer seasonal), and Munich Dark (my personal favorite from their main lineup, available year round at the brewery but unfortunately rare elsewhere). How is this possible? Why don’t they seem to succumb to the limitations presented by a single strain of yeast?

Asked about it during the tour I attended, the guide simply explained that flavor differences among the styles were a result of ingredients, that is the barley and hops were different, but that the common string running through the beers in their main lineup-marking them like a signature for anyone with a palate refined enough to read it-was the fruity profile of their proprietary yeast strain. This didn’t quite do it for me, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

First, a tiny primer on yeast for the uninformed. Yeast are single-celled organisms that turn sweet wort into beer. They breed, then they feed, then they sleep until someone provides them more food (not a bad life if you ask me). During the feeding process, they turn simple sugars in wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide (which if trapped, as in bottle conditioned or cask beer, will naturally carbonate the beer). They also produce various other compounds that impact the flavor and aromatic character of the finished beer, among them esters (a class of compounds with fruity or citrusy flavor and aroma) and phenolics (a class of compounds with a spicy flavor and aroma).

What the tour guide was saying then, is that Harpoon selected and then patented their particular strain of yeast based primarily on the fact that the founders were particularly pleased with the estery profile it produced. The strain is also an ale yeast, which works quicker and is, by most accounts, less temperamental than lager strains (we’ll get into the difference in a later article). They must have worked very hard to find just the right strain, and I imagine that using a single strain is very convenient, in that it limits the chance of cross contamination within the brewery and makes the work of managing the yeast farm that much simpler. But how do they get away with it?

Lets break this down by style. I’ll be referencing the BJCP style guidelines alot for this; for those unfamiliar, this is the body responsible for certifying people to judge beer competitions (also not a bad life), and they are also the clearing house for style definitions in a way, so that all us beer geeks around the world can use a consistent vocabulary when discussing matters of style.

First the ales in the British and American tradition, as there is some overlap here. Harpoon brews an IPA, a combination Pale Ale/Amber Ale, a Brown Ale, and an Irish Red Ale in the Spring. American and British strains of ale yeast do tend to have somewhat similar, estery profiles, so it’s not surprising that the descriptions for nearly all of these styles make a mention of fruitiness or esters in both aroma and flavor.

The only exception is Irish Red, which is expected to contain no esters according to BJCP. However, there is nothing that says you can’t use an estery yeast to make a beer with a clean, ester-free profile. You can think of yeast profiles somewhat like a stereo with a broken tuning knob. You can turn the volume up and down (by playing with fermentation temperatures or pitching rates…more on this in another article), but there’s not much you can do if it’s tuned to the wrong station. Besides this, it’s possible that you can even make a fine Irish Red with a fruity, estery profile as well, it just wouldn’t fit into the defined style category very well.

When I started to consider the German styles in the lineup things got a little hairier, though. The Summer Beer (Kolsch) is no problem; BJCP describes it as a “Hybrid” beer made with a clean ale yeast. This is geek-speak for a beer made from ale yeast, working at very low temperatures to create a relatively clean profile (having less esters than the yeast would otherwise make) and then lagered to further round out the edges in the profile (lagering roughly corresponds to those conditioning tanks in the brewery, near which the air temperature drops a few dozen degrees!). The description also refers to some fruitiness in flavor and aroma, originating from fermentation; this is our good friend the ester at work, just with less potency than the British and American ales, brought about by a low fermentation temperature.

The German lager styles were a bit more troubling for me; that would include Munich Dark (or “Dunkels”) and the Octoberfest fall seasonal. Lagers ferment at temperatures much too low for ale yeast, resulting in a remarkably clean profile. This is why all the fizzy yellow American stuff is lager beer (though not particularly good examples of it…ask a German). It is possible to produce a lager beer with ale yeast, if you have a particularly clean, versatile yeast that can keep working at low temperatures and produce a fairly clean fermentation. When we taste the Harpoon lineup with this in mind this is pretty much what we find, fairly clean tasting beers that are probably just a tad more estery than some other examples brewed with lager yeasts; but honestly the extra complexity is not unwelcome for folks who live outside style boundaries.

This is good enough for Munich Dark; Dunkels are generally a clean but roasty lager (my intuition being borne out by BJCP, which says there should be no fruity esters or diacetal in Dunkels). But I’ve always known the Octoberfest/Marzen style to have a sort of unique spiciness to it, which I always attributed to the yeast (that is, from our old friends, the phenols). I checked the Wyeast and White Labs sites for their respective Octoberfest strain descriptions, and was surprised to find that neither made any mention of spiciness or phenols, focusing instead on the complex maltiness of the finished beer. A little further digging turned up that in fact, the spicy flavor I’ve found in other ‘fest beers probably came from the German “noble hops” so often used in these styles, rather than from the yeast profile. This example illustrates an important point that we’ll keep coming back to in later articles, that the brewer has many levers at their disposal to effect the flavor and aroma characteristics of the finished beer.

So far so good. All of the beers in the Harpoon lineup either have a fruity profile according to BJCP, or are fairly clean, both of which are achievable with an estery yeast. Winter Warmer (the winter seasonal) is a spiced beer, which can be of any style, so it’s not really covered by BJCP in any detail and we can ignore that one. The bulk of the flavor profile is most likely from the spices used, rather than the yeast. This just leaves the elephant in the room.

The Punks have a well known prejudice against the UFO beers. We are fans of Harpoon, and it has always caused us some inner conflict that some of their most commercially successful offerings are so unpalatable to us. It’s not that they’re bad beers, but something is amiss here as far as we are concerned, and the answer lies in the yeast.

The UFO series is Harpoon’s line of unfiltered wheat beers. It all started with the UFO Hefeweizen, which is a style with German roots. Then they added raspberry to it (we feel too much raspberry…ever crammed raspberries up your nose?) to make Raspberry UFO. Then recently they added UFO White, which is based on the Belgian White Ale (or Witbier) style of unfiltered wheat beer; this is our favorite from the series but still doesn’t quite make the cut for us. We’ll also lump in the new Crystal Wheat (or “Kristallweizen”) that has started showing up in summer mix packs as a limited edition brew, because as far as we can tell this is the filtered version of the original UFO, with some lemon peel for spicing.

The problem here, for us Punks, is that the base styles of these beers (which we love with a passion) use very specialized (and often temperamental) yeast strains. The German Hefeweizens use weizen yeast strains which produce a very complex profile rich in banana-like esters and clove-like phenols. The Belgian yeast used to produce traditional Witbiers, too, is known for a profile dominated by spicy phenols, at least according to the strain descriptions on Wyeast and White Labs sites. But the Harpoon yeast doesn’t have a significant phenol profile to speak of; it was selected specifically for its estery profile. So why would you use it in beer styles known for phenolic character?

What we have here isn’t an example of bad beer, or even beer brewed out of style, but an example of the Americanization of old world styles. One can now speak of an American Hefeweizen style that uses simple American ale yeast but lacks the complex clove and banana flavor of traditional German Hefeweizens like Punk favorites Ayinger, Erdinger, or Schneider; they tend more toward citrusy flavors (we’ve been known to describe UFO as tasting like you are sucking on a lemon…this is an exaggeration, but only slightly when compared to more traditional Hefeweizens). Likewise many American breweries are making what they refer to as White Ale by using typical American Ale yeast and getting the “phenolic” character by simply adding spices like coriander to the beer. The result is somewhat less than satisfying once you’ve had the real thing.

This doesn’t necessarily make UFO, or other Americanized beers for that matter, a bad beer. I wouldn’t dare be so unpatriotic so soon after our most hallowed national holiday. Sometimes we get it very right. I can’t think of a single English IPA that I’ve ever tried, even though the style originated there. It was originally brewed heavy and hoppy to survive the long journey to the military outposts in India, but I feel that it finally got its sea legs right here in the US during the craft beer revolution of the eighties and nineties (by the way, Harpoon makes one of our favorite examples of this style). But occasionally, when the base style is so defined by the yeast that makes it, why accept substitutes? This is why the UFO series will never really receive a passing grade from the Punks. It is a fine beer if you like these Americanized styles, and I encourage you to try it and form your own opinion. Just make sure to reach a bit deeper into the cooler and try it alongside one of the more traditional examples of the style I’ve listed above, otherwise you are doing yourself a great disservice. Harpoon brews a fine American Hefe – citrusy, crisp, and refreshing, it makes a decent alternative to your typical lawnmower beer – but intercontinental it is not.

One feels that even Harpoon brewers themselves are fully aware of the limitations presented by their one-yeast rule. This is no doubt why their specialty beer lineups, including the Leviathin series and Punk fave 100 Barrel series, have ditched the limitations and produced some very fine, unique beers in the process. But I must say, supported by the BJCP guidelines as well as my own palate, that they’ve done an excellent job of selecting styles that are appropriate for their chosen strain, even when those styles don’t match my particular palate.